I get this question a lot. When did you start? Let me get out my guitar and tune it, so that we can start from the very beginning. A very good place to start. When you read, you begin with A B C. When you write, you begin by putting one word after another...
My first writing memory was 1990. Before this point I was a single-celled sponge quietly absorbing oral tradition stories, books, and movies. I later evolved to an upright bipedal homo erectus and terrorized blank pages of butcher paper and cave walls with tempura paint. But 4th grade came around and I had an assignment to write a ghost story on some ruled lines within the belly of a cartoon ghost. So I plagiarized a particularly good episode of Scooby Doo. I thrilled my teacher so much , she showed her mother. I got a red A++ written on my ghost's head. I didn't know what plagiarism was at this point, but I knew I'd done something wrong. It didn't feel so good that I hadn't thrilled my teacher, Ms. Quackenbush, with my own ingenuity and daring. But I knew that I wanted to thrill someone with my own words and imagination one day. I just needed an original story. I couldn't think of one. I set the pencil down and turned back to books and dolls.
Flash forward to the next time I cracked my literary knuckles. I was twelve. It was summer. I'd just read Stephen King's Salems Lot and I was going to write a horror story about some evil tree ghouls. I thought, for some reason, that you had to describe every mundane detail a character does. You know. Brushing your teeth. Putting the cap back on the toothpaste. Spitting. Rinsing. Closing the door. Getting in a car. Pulling your seatbelt on until it clicks. Turning the car on, putting it in reverse - And on and on until I got so bored, I quit after three hours. At that rate, I'd never get to the good stuff - where the evil tree ghouls with bark skin and inky black eyes slinked out of their tree hosts at night to rob cradles and terrorize small towns. I set the pencil down again and turned back to books. And boys.
I was 17 and I had another assignment for AP English. We had to spontaneously write about setting for fifteen minutes. So I did. Then I was called upon to read what I'd written, out loud to the class. I wrote a first person scene about driving through the California desert at night. There was a visitor to our class that day, a young woman that I think was alumni. She had red hair. She stopped me after class and told me she loved what I'd written and that she wanted to work with me on some kind of college project or program. I agreed, but then I never saw her again.
Not long after that, I went not very far away to a liberal arts college. I never got around to taking any real literature or writing classes. I regret this very much. I focused on art because it came so easily to me. I did write in my spare time though, with being young, in an academic setting, and in love, I wrote a lot of terrible poetry - heavy handed erotic poems with weird symbolism that didn't really make sense. Cringe worthy stuff that exposed my sexual and emotional inexperience and my love for the work of .e. cummings. I happily and liberally submitted them to the college's literary journal. Thankfully, I never got any published.
2002, was the year the writing bug bit me hard. My mother was sick, dying. I'd taken a year off to go to New York and help fashion designer Anna Sui out for six months, then I went home to part time caregive and write the outstanding senior thesis paper needed to obtain my college diploma. The caregiving and writing went horribly. I almost didn't graduate. I moved out, into my future-in-laws so I could focus on writing a 50 page philosophy of life paper instead of the torturous tunnel of death that is watching someone's slow death by cancer and understandably, their subsequent Benzo addiction. Writing became an escape and direct line into understanding the subterranean depths of my mind. I found my voice, wrote a very unconventional "paper", and handed it in just in time to get married to my college sweetheart. A few weeks later, my college advisor, art and life mentor, father figure, and friend, Professor Billy Mayer, looked over his glasses at me when he handed it back with my diploma and said, "Humphrey, I hate to say this, being that you literally just graduated with a fine art degree, but I believe you missed your calling. You need to write more."
I took his words to heart. I really wanted to write, the only trouble was, I had no idea what to write about. Someone gave me this advice:
write the kind of book you want to read
I moved to Pittsburgh and instead of writing, I attempted to balance traveling back and forth to Michigan to do what I could for my dying mother, all while trying to forge a new married life, make friends in a new city, find a job to pay the bills that were piling up...try to make my way in this world creatively, some how. I did none of it well. My mother died. I realized I married the wrong person. I had no local friends of my own. Whatever success I had in New York City wasn't translating over in Pittsburgh. My only sibling and I weren't speaking to each other, but I'd started working at an auction house. The workload was stiff, the pay was minimal, but the world was fascinating and the people were characters. The story I wanted to read started bubbling in a pot on the back burner of my mind, but it didn't have all the ingredients yet. It simmered there for many years while everything in my life came to a head, which can best be summed up with this Charlotte Bronte quote from a letter she wrote to a confidant back in March 1845 (two years before she wrote Jane Eyre):
"I shall soon be 30 and I have done nothing yet."
At age 29, I turned my life upside down, like one might do to a junk drawer. A divorce. A bunch of debt. For awhile I had nothing but for a very faint and distant hope for a better future. I clung to that and very slowly I began to fill the drawer back up, but only with stuff that was important. A new lover. A new job. New friends. A few matchbooks. Writing. After a while, I was able to breathe and think about writing again. I moved the simmering pot from the back burner, back up to the front and scratched my head. I surmised, adding a little of this and a little of that would make the story more interesting, but still it needed a twist that would drive a stake right through the reader's heart. I hemmed and hawed, discussed other possibilities with a close literary friend of mine. Then the final ingredient for that simmering story fell in my lap one night. I was about to fall asleep next to my lover when the sandman delivered a brown paper package all tied up with string. It bounced up and smacked me wide awake. After nearly ten years of thinking about writing, I finally had all the story pieces and courage to do something about it. The next day I started writing. I don't know the exact day, but it was late fall and the year was 2012. I haven't stopped writing since.
When did you start writing? Did you always know you wanted to write? Or did it sneak up on you later on? Do you have a story simmering on the back burner? Do you think a writer needs a certain amount of life experience to write and write well?